A satire is a humorous or witty exposure of human failings; weaknesses, follies, absurdities, and pretensions. The Importance of Being Earnest is truly a satire, and a very witty and amusing one. The principal target of satire in this play is the English upper class of the time, although we have a couple of satirical portraits of persons belonging to certain different orders of society, namely those of a clergyman and a governess. The author in this play ridicules certain typical representatives of the English aristocracy of the time, and he equally ridicules certain other persons as well.
The Satirical Portrayal of Algernon
Let us take the case of Algernon first. He is a typical representative of the English upper class of the time, and he has been portrayed in a satirical manner. His shallowness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and vanity have been exposed in such a manner as to make us laugh at this specimen of the aristocracy. If the servants in his house drink his champagne, he treats the matter light-heartedly. He throws expensive parties, even though he admits that he is short of money. He tells Jack that he would like to get a prize for restoring his cigarette-case to him because he is particularly hard up at this time. In fact, he is in a state of indebtedness. As Lady Bracknell points out, “he has nothing but his debts to depend upon.” Another trait of his character which is satirically treated is his gluttony. As Jack points out, this man is always hungry and is always eating whether it be cucumber sandwiches or muffins. He wants Jack to invite him to dinner at an expensive restaurant. One would think that eating is his main bobby. Algernon is a fashionable man, and is always over-dressed. This too is something to make us laugh, because aristocratic young men attach too much importance to their clothes. As Lady Bracknell points out, Algernon “is nothing but he looks every thing”. According to Jack. Algernon has a ridiculous vanity. This is clear from the fact that Algernon claims to be always “immensely over-educated”. His vanity is seen also in his claim that he plays on the piano with wonderful expression, sentiment being his forte. One of his absurdities is that he expects the lower orders of society to set a good example of moral responsibility to the upper classes. His view that relatives are “a tedious pack of people” again shows his vanity and his egoism. He actually loves to hear his relatives abused. One aspect of his shallowness is that at every party he would like to flirt with some woman. Nor does his Bunburying do him any credit. In short, the whole portrayal of Algernon is satirical, his only commendable and admirable quality being his brilliant wit.
The Satirical Portrayal of Jack
Then there is Jack. He too is a representative of the upper class. But he is a much better specimen because there is much in him that we approve. He is a responsible-minded guardian, and he is a serious type of young man in whose talk, according to Miss Prism, “there is no room for triviality and idle merriment”. But he goes to the other extreme. While Algernon is too light-hearted, Jack is too serious-minded. His very solemnity is made to look ridiculous. Cecily says that her Uncle Jack sometimes looks so serious as to give the impression that he is unwell. Algernon says that lack is “the most earnest-looking man” he has ever known. Jack’s over-seriousness has sharply been contrasted with Algernon’s gaiety. Jack’s over-seriousness is also to be found in his refusal to go either to the theatre, or to the club, or to the Empire. When asked by Algernon what they should do, Jack’s reply is : “Nothing”. Nor is his over-seriousness the only ridiculous aspect of his character. He thinks Gwendolen to be a very intellectual kind of girl, while we know her to be absolutely shallow. He admires Cecily not only because she has an excellent appetite and takes long walks but also because she pays no attention at all to her studies. He does not believe in telling the truth to a nice, sweet, refined girt. He does not know whether a severe chill is hereditary or not. Thus the portrayal of Jack too is satirical in intention and in effect.
The Satirical Portrayal of Gwendolen
There are three women representatives of the upper class, and each has been portrayed in a satirical manner. There is Gwendolen whose superficiality and ignorance are extremely amusing. For instance, she cannot understand how anybody of any importance can exist in the countryside. Nor did she have any idea that there were flowers growing in the countryside. Though fond of living in the town, she hates crowds. She is proud of the fact that she has never seen a spade. When she makes a railway journey, she likes to carry her diary with her because she wants to read something sensational. But her most amusing absurdity is her enthusiastic reaction to the name of Ernest. She thinks Ernest to be a divine name which has a music of its own and which produces vibrations. It was always her cherished ideal to love someone of the name of Ernest, she says. In order to marry the man with whom she has fallen in love, chiefly on the basis of his name, she runs away from home thus showing no regard at all for the decencies of family life. It is clear, then, that the author is laughing at this aristocratic young girl and, of course, he makes us laugh at her too. In her case too it could be said that her talent for witty conversation is her only redeeming quality.
The Satirical Elements in the Portrayal of Cecily
Cecily is another representative of the upper class and though a better specimen than Gwendolen, she amuses us by her failings and absurdities. She is not at all interested in German grammar, political economy, or geography, all of which she regards as “horrid” She keeps a diary in which she .records every minor detail of her life, calling its contents “the wonderful secrets of life”. Though she does have charm, and a good deal of it, she yet shows a ridiculous side to her personality. Like Gwendolen, she too goes into raptures over the name Ernest. It had always been a girlish dream of hers to love someone of the name of Ernest, she says. Her account of how she had fallen in love with Ernest is even more absurd than her enthusiastic reaction to the name. She fell in love with him without even having seen or met him ; she got engaged to him in her imagination ; she even bought herself an engagement ring on his behalf ; and once she broke off the engagement. Her absurdity appears further in her wanting to put down in her diary every word that her lover has to say in praise of her.
The Satirical Portrayal of Lady Bracknell
The portrayal of Lady Bracknell is perhaps the most satirical of all. In this case the author simply gloats over his task of exposing the foibles and absurdities of the upper-class ladies of his time. Nor is there any doubt about the enormous success that the author has made of his job. Lady Bracknell claims to have a taste for music, but she would like her nephew to make the selection of the numbers to be played at her party. In other words, her taste in music is simply a pretence. But this is only a minor, foible in her. Her principal absurdities are her snobbery, her class-consciousness, her mercenary outlook on life, her suspicious nature, and her domineering temperament. The manner in which she cross-examines Jack to determine his suitability as her son-in-law shows both her suspicious nature and her domineering temperament. Both these traits appear again in the questions which she subsequently asks in order to determine suitability of Cecily as a wife for Algernon. This second cross-examination shows also the importance of money in her eyes because, as soon as she learns that Cecily will bring a rich dowry, she begins to see, in Cecily certain qualities which she had not observed before. But even then she speaks to Cecily and about Cecily in a patronizing, tone, and adopts a superior attitude towards her. Perhaps her greatest absurdity appears in her claim that, although she herself did not have any fortune, she did not allow that circumstance to stand in the way of her marrying Lord Bracknell. Her domineering nature appears also in the manner in which she exercises rigid control over her daughter and her own husband, and this aspect her life is also ridiculed by the author. The portrayals of Lady Bracknell and the two younger specimens of the aristocracy are thus very successful in exposing the failings and absurdities of the society ladies of the time.
The Satirical Portrayal of Dr. Chasuble
Another satirical portrait in the play is that of Dr. Chasuble. This portrait is a satire on clergymen. A clergyman is expected to inspire respect, but Dr. Chasuble excites our mirth. Dr. Chasuble is ridiculed for his pompous manner of speaking, his hypocrisy, his lack of real scholarship, and his materialistic attitude to life. As for his pompous manner of speaking, one example will serve the purpose. On seeing Jack in mourning clothes, Dr. Chasuble says to him : “Dear Mr. Worthing, I trust this garb of woe does not betoken some terrible calamity ?” His lack of any real learning is evident from Cecily’s remark that he is one of the most learned men because he has not written a single book. It is absurd on his part to claim that a particular sermon of his can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful or distressing. Another absurdity in his talk occurs when he makes a classical allusion drawn from the pagan authors. He is a Christian priest, but he quotes pagan authors. His hypocrisy appears in the fact that in theory he is opposed to matrimony but that actually he has been flirting with Miss Prism precisely with the object of marrying her. He is a clergyman without any really spiritual quality. He feels very disappointed when Algernon and Jack give up their intention to be baptised after having obtained his view that there can be no technical objection to the baptism of grown-up people.
The Satirical Portrayal of Miss Prism
Miss Prism amuses us by her literary pretensions. She once wrote a three-volume novel which she deposited” in the perambulator while she put the baby under her charge in a hand-bag which she placed in a railway cloak-room. Nothing could be more absurd than this behaviour which is supposed to have resulted from her absent-mindedness. In addition to her literary pretensions, she also has moral pretensions which she shows in her dislike of the wicked younger brother of Jack Worthing and in her feeling of joy at the reported death of that wicked fellow. As a man sows, so shall he reap, she remarks on this occasion, with an air of moral superiority. The portrayal of Miss Prism is also satirical.